About Learning to Read in Korean

The Korean alphabet is called hangul. The nice thing about learning to read in Korean is that there is only one alphabet.  It is not like Japanese that has several ways of reading. Once you learn to read hangul, you don’t have to add another way of reading. It is also similar to learning to read in English because each letter only has one constant or one vowel sound. Another way it is like learning to read in English is that each letter has a name, but it also may have a different pronunciation than the name of the letter. Beyond that, another way that it is like English is that once you learn the basic sounds of the letters, you are also going to have to learn sounds of the combinations of letters.  For example, in English, in “ce,” “ca” and “ch” that “c” is not pronounced the same every time. You say, “s” for “ce,” “ka” for “ce, and it is hard to transcribe “ch” any other way than “ch,” but it isn’t an “s” or a “k” sound. Korean letters have ideas like this too.

alphabet letter text on black background
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Something else about learning Korean that is like English is that it is usually read from left to right, but at times, I have seen it from top to bottom.  You don’t read Korean from right to left like you do Japanese or Arabic.

When you see Korean written, but don’t know how to read it, it looks like a simple form of the Chinese characters, and you wonder if each one has a meaning, but it doesn’t.  They are just letters.  The thing that makes them look like Chinese characters is that you are looking at a syllable, and the syllables are very important in Korean.  You don’t write a syllable in a word all on one line like in English.  You write small groupings of letters that start with a letter on top, and then one to the side, and then one or two on the bottom.  The words are made up of combinations of these syllables.  Sometimes a word is only one syllable.

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The  basic Korean alphabet sounds are easy to memorize. When I realized I was coming to Korea, I got on the internet, found the alphabet, and memorized the basic sounds in one day.  However, learning to read is more complicated than memorizing the alphabet sounds. It is not as complicated as learning to read in English, but it is similar to trying to learn to read in English.  I learned to read without learning the names of the letters, and I learned the names of the letters later when my daughter went to a language program at Seoul National University and learned the names of the letters. She taught me, and she has taught me a lot of Korean. You can’t talk about the letters without knowing the names, but you can learn to read by just knowing the sounds.

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If you have every tried to put one of these together, doing this is much easier than learning to speak Korean.///Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Korean is actually a very complicated language to try to learn to speak. It is much harder to learn to speak Korean than to speak Japanese for many reasons.  I have known foreigners who lived in Korea for many years and just haven’t learned to speak Korean because it is so hard.  They also don’t learn because the Koreans know how hard their language is for foreigners, and sometimes really badly, and other times great, from person to person, many Koreans learn to speak English and want to speak English.  They know no communication will take place if they don’t study English because Korean is so complicated.  They like to speak to you in English, so they get practice, and you don’t get practice speaking Korean, but when they realize that a foreigner in Korean can’t speak Korean, they are not happy about it.  It is not like being in Japan where the Japanese would rather speak Japanese and encourage foreigners to learn by having conversations with them in Japanese. If you speak to a Korean in Korean, he may just speak back in English. However, they feel a little slighted if you aren’t at least trying to learn to speak Korean.

cat mascot outdoors
The first line is in Korean on this sign.  The first syllable is “ko.”  The second syllable is “yang.” The next syllable that looks like a zero and a one is pronounced “ee. “ko yang- ee” means “cat.”   The next syllable is “kah.” The last syllable is “peh.”  “kah-peh” is “cafe”  They don’t have an “f” sound in Korean, so they usually substitute a “P” if an English word has an “f”.” The sign is also in English, Japanese, and Chinese because they know how hard Korean is.////Photo by JAMIE DIAZ on Pexels.com

If you try to read in Korea, the signs that have English letters on them have a strange kind of phonics that is not English or Roman or anything you are used to.  You have to learn to read the Korean letters, and then you can figure out how to pronounce the English words they have written.  The average Korean doesn’t realize that the phonics on their English signs is not English, but Korean phonics. When you see their English signs, you will be trying to twist your mouth around trying to figure out how things like “neo” sound like. It is not “neo” like in English at all. It doesn’t mean “new” on the front of the word.  The problem with “o” in Korean is that there are two letters in Korean that are pronounced like an English “o.”  In English, we make no difference between the two pronunciations they make a difference between.  They have a long “o” sound, but that is only a long “o” sound to people who don’t live in the Ohio Valley in the U. S.  In the Ohio Valley, that long “o” sound is completely different from what other English speakers say.  It is said by rounding your mouth more, and the letter comes out differently, but we recognize it as our long “o” sound, just pronounced slightly differently. However, the difference between those two accents in English becomes the difference between two letters in Korean. When they write Korean with English letters, they use “o” for the long “o” sound, and “eo” for another letter that is like the long “o” sound in the Ohio Valley. You can see how their system of writing Korean in English can be complicated for us as foreigners.  Most people haven’t even been to the Ohio Valley to hear how they pronounce their long “o.”  Encountering “eo” drives people crazy as do other letters they write in English. It is easier to read Korean with Korean letters.

We have a GPS, a navigational system in our car.  They were surprised when they asked us if we wanted it in English, and we said we wanted it in Korean.  The reason is because it is hard to read Korean with English letters, and gets confusing when you have to do it fast while you are driving.

Usually, in English, if we have accents, it is with the vowels, but in Korean, not so, and that complicates trying to learn the alphabet and talk to them after reading their books.  There are lots and lots of books to help foreigners learn to read and speak Korean in Korea. However, the book may tell you a letter is pronounced like a hard “g,” but when someone talks it could be pronounced like a “g,” or it could be pronounced like a hard “k.”

man in brown long sleeved button up shirt standing while using gray laptop computer on brown wooden table beside woman in gray long sleeved shirt sitting
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You just have to learn by reading, talking, and listening.  Sometimes, they say a “j” sound, but when you read the word, it may be written with a “ch” sound.  The word for “what” can drive you crazy!  To begin with, there are many different renditions or forms of the word.  If you are talking about the letter the books says is “m,” you may hear “mo,” you may hear “mee-yot,”  or you may hear “moosun.” They all mean “what.” However, what makes it even harder is that the average Korean speaker will say that “m” different from person to person. One will say the “m” like we say it. but the next person will say “b.”  In the beginning, you get so confused you think you will never learn, and many foreigners give up trying to learn Korean.

They do the same thing with the word for “see” or “look.”  If you read it, it begins with a “b.”  However, “see” or “look” is a verb which means there are infinite things you can do with it in Korean, and add to that some people pronouncing the “b” like an “p.”  If you read it on the page, “see or sees” or “look or looks” becomes “boda.”  However, if you use that in speaking, they will understand, but think you are very stiff.  When you hear, “boyeyo,” you may think it is “see or look”, but it actually means, “What is it?” with the “m” pronounced as a “b.”  They want to hear, “bo-ahyo” (that “o-a” is blended differently than “oa” in English.) which means “boda,” but in very soft spoken Korean.  If they want to be very polite, they will say “bobshida” meaning the same thing.  On top of that, it is hard to recognize if you don’t know they might change the pronunciation from person to person and from the book to the spoken.  This is easy compared to some of the nonsense the put you through.

If foreigners get past all this, they may still have trouble getting past the grammar which is also very complicated.  The definition of a sentence is not the same in English and Korean.  When we use an exclamation point, they will change that verb and use grammar again.  The verb endings seem infinite.  They have shades of meaning we have never thought about.  If you don’t give up, you eventually learn to speak Korean, but it takes more time and effort than other languages. Reading the alphabet is not like actually learning to read and speak their words and the language.  However, just learning the alphabet isn’t hard.

There are Korean government tests for foreigners to take to judge their level of Korean.  If an American or Englishman ever makes it to a level six, it seems like a miracle!  Some others make it easier.  The people from Bangladesh who love to come to Korea make it easier because all their grammar patterns are the same as Korean.  The people from China make it easier because they have many words in common with Korean.  The people from Japan make it easier because their grammar is the same and some words are the same, but not as many as they would wish.  If you speak any European language except Hungarian, you will struggle with Korean.  From what I understand Hungarian and Korean are very similar. Linguists put them in the same language family like Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, French, and Spanish are put in the same language family.  There are many Hungarian Romanians which make me wonder if the violinist I heard the other night from Romania who spoke Korean was a Hungarian Romanian.  The Mongolians also find Korean easier than English speakers.

photo of head bust print artwork
In America, we think anyone who speaks a foreign language must be smart.  In my travels, I have learned it is usually true, but not always because two languages may be extremely similar. For example, I have learned that Portuguese is almost like just another accent of Spanish.  However, any English speaker who learns to speak Korean must have a lot on the ball!  If they didn’t they couldn’t do it.///Photo by meo on Pexels.com

My daughter made it to a level six in Korean.  I have a friend from Bangladesh who also made it to a level six.  I can bet it was much harder for my daughter than for my friend from Bangladesh even though I know how intelligent he is. He is working as a translator between English and Korean now.  Any English speaker who gets to a level six in Korean has accomplished something phenomenal!  There is a guy who is famous in Korea, and I am not sure if he is English or American, but he is famous because they are astounded because he made it to level six, and they put his pictures all over the subways.  The Koreans know how hard their language is. Don’t let it discourage you.  Just reading the alphabet isn’t that hard.  It is like learning to read in English, but slightly easier until you begin trying to listen to them speak and compare it to what is on the page.


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